Twenty-Five Years of Post-it Notes

Once upon a time, the American office was a nightclub with typewriters—at least according to mid-century myths like The Hucksters or The Apartment. Formal dress was mandatory. Client meetings had a two-drink minimum and every plush blond secretary was as tightly tufted as a Florence Knoll lounge chair. On occasion, there were papers to shuffle, bosses to placate, but ultimately all it took to succeed in this hectic but undemanding middle-management Eden was a crisp white collar, a bottle of aspirin, and an aptitude for caustic banter. This was the American workplace. Alas, once the mid-sixties rolled around, innovative geeks started ruining everything. Secretaries gave way to Xerox machines, calculators, mainframes, terminals, personal computers, and fax machines. Private offices were subdivided into cubicles. Steel desks as solid as tanks were replaced by cheap particleboard workstations and an ever-expanding tangle of incompatible beige devices. It was enough to drive one to drink, but office life perversely had become far too complex to negotiate with a hangover. Even goofing off required a user manual.

On April 6, 1980, though, the endless and complicated march of progress took a short break as a remarkable new technology arrived in stationery stores around the nation. It was so simple to use, even a CEO could master it. It was so perfectly designed, it didn’t require semi-annual upgrades. It was so versatile, it actually performed better than advertised. It was the Post-it Note.

Two and a half decades later, as the little yellow notes celebrate their silver anniversary, it’s easy to forget what a recent innovation they are. Thanks to their material simplicity, they seem more closely related to workplace antiquities like the stapler and the hole-punch than integrated chips. Instead, they’re an exemplary product of their time. Foreshadowing the web, they offered an easy way to link one piece of information to another in a precisely contextual way. Foreshadowing email, they made informal, asynchronous communication with your co-workers a major part of modern office life.

In the wake of the Post-it Note’s huge commercial success and enduring popularity, its development is often cited as a classic example of business innovation. Most of the time, though, the tale is synopsized, elided, reduced to a few efficient paragraphs. On the face of it, this is fitting for a product that helped usher in the era of PowerPoint presentations and instant messaging.

But the story of 3M engineer Art Fry’s invention is a grand chronicle of post-industrial American enterprise. It encompasses skeptical bosses, last-ditch marketing campaigns, and that old Hollywood crowd-pleaser, “inherently tacky elastomeric copolymer microspheres.” It deserves a more in-depth telling than it typically gets.

Long before Art Fry decided to build a better bookmark, he would tag along with his dad on weekend trips to the local dump. “We’d bring home stuff, take it apart, and put it back together in different ways,” he recently recalled. Later, as a student at the University of Minnesota in the early 1950s, Fry studied chemical engineering. While he was planning to pursue a career in the field, his father encouraged him to acquire supplementary skills as well. “He told me, ‘You can have great ideas, but if you can’t sell those ideas, you’re dead in the water,’” Fry said. Consequently, Fry took a summer job as a door-to-door salesman, peddling a strategic combination of products. Fry would quickly diagnose his potential client’s vulnerabilities, and tailor his sales pitch accordingly. “If a gal had an itchy foot, I’d hit her with the luggage. If she was a homebody, I got her with the pots and pans.”

After two summers as a salesman, though, Fry spent his final break as an intern at 3M. “I asked the engineers if I could try and develop new products, and they said, ‘Sure,’” Fry said. “After I graduated, I thought all companies would let you pick up the ball and run with it like that.” A few job interviews with other companies convinced him this wasn’t the case, however, so when 3M offered him a permanent position in its New Product Development division, he accepted. “I had to work at 3M for five years before I made what I did as a part-time salesman!” Fry said with a laugh.

Inventors are often depicted as mercurial, wild-eyed savants; Fry, who is seventy-four years old, is the opposite of this stereotype. He’s persistent but even-tempered, gracious, and inquisitive. He’s been retired for thirteen years now, but in his days in the 3M lab, he never let success go to his head or failure overwhelm him. In the world of commercial invention, this last trait was especially indispensable. During his first two decades at 3M, Fry worked on hundreds of projects, but only twenty or so made it all the way to market. “That’s actually higher than average,” he explained, and he views the ones that didn’t quite make it in a characteristically positive manner. “On every assignment, I learned something valuable. Either about mechanics or chemistry or negotiating the system at 3M, all those tiny things you have to know.”

In 1974, Fry initiated a project that would end up tapping the full range of his skills. It started on the second hole of 3M’s private golf course; that’s where a colleague told Fry about an odd substance that another 3M employee had created years earlier. In 1968, while searching for new, patentable adhesives, a chemist named Spencer Silver mixed some simple organic molecules with a reaction mixture in proportions that defied industry convention. This produced an adhesive that, in the lexicon of science, consisted of “inherently tacky elastomeric copolymer microspheres.” On the molecular level, this substance resembled the pebbled skin of a basketball. This characteristic sabotaged its bonding power; the tiny spaces between the microspheres made it impossible to get complete contact between the adhesive and another surface. In layman’s terms, it was a glue that didn’t stick very well.

Pessimists would have called this a failure; Silver viewed it as a challenging puzzle. What could an underachieving adhesive be useful for? Silver pondered this question, and he posed it to his 3M colleagues as well. But while many people found the adhesive scientifically interesting, no one proposed any practical applications for it. In time, Silver decided one potential product was a bulletin board, and in the early seventies, 3M introduced a product called the Post-it Bulletin Board. “It was literally a piece of paper that had a photograph of a cork bulletin board on it,” recalls Pat Gaudio Edwards, a former 3M marketing coordinator. The photograph was covered with a layer of Silver’s glue, so you could stick a document to it without using a thumbtack.

Sales were disappointing, however. Part of the problem was that it wasn’t just documents that stuck to the board’s surface; dust did, too. Perhaps more importantly, there just wasn’t much demand for a better bulletin board. To create a truly great product, you need a truly great problem, and the truth was, traditional bulletin boards worked fine for most people. Thumbtacks weren’t that costly, and who cared if they left a hole in, say, the flyer announcing the annual company picnic? For super-fussy collectors of corporate communications ephemera, the Post-it Bulletin Board was a dream product. For everyone else, it was just a linty photo of a genuine cork bulletin board.

Still, Silver continued to believe in his unusual adhesive, and he continued to evangelize about it to his 3M colleagues. At every in-house 3M seminar where there was an available slot, Silver demonstrated his discovery, and it was at one of these seminars that Fry’s golfing partner first heard about the substance. Intrigued, Fry attended one of Silver’s presentations, too. But like everyone else who’d seen the glue, a potential use for it stumped him.

And then one day, in the North Presbyterian Church in North St. Paul, inspiration struck. Fry was a member of his congregation’s choir; before each service, he placed tiny slips of paper into his hymnal to mark the songs the choir planned to sing that day. While Minnesota Presbyterians aren’t especially known for their emphatic performance style, Fry still had trouble keeping the bookmarks in place. Every time he stood up to sing, the slips fluttered from his hymnal. Suddenly, though, it hit him: If he applied some of Silver’s adhesive to his tiny slips of paper, his problem would be solved. The bookmarks would stay in place when he needed them to, without permanently bonding to the pages of his hymnal.

Still, Fry couldn’t just drop everything to start working on a better bookmark. He was already in the middle of several official projects. At 3M, however, there is a long-standing policy that permits employees to spend fifteen percent of their time working on projects of their own choosing. So Fry obtained some adhesive from Silver and started making bookmarks. “The first one was about a quarter inch wide and one and a half inches long, on white paper,” he said. When he tried it out in his hymnal, it worked great–– until he removed it. While most of the adhesive left with the bookmark, too much of it remained on the hymnal’s pages. “The first few hymnals I tried it out on stuck together for years,” he said. To solve this problem, Fry applied a chemical primer to his bookmarks; this made the adhesive stick better to them than to any other surface. With a workable prototype in hand, Fry drew upon the skills he’d learned as a door-to-door salesman. “I gave some to my cohorts in the lab, to secretaries, to the librarians,” he said. But when he checked in with them a few weeks later to see if they wanted more, no one did. The bookmarks he’d already given them were still working; his colleagues just kept shifting them from page to page. “That was discouraging,” Fry recalled. “3M liked to make things that people use up.”

In fact, Fry’s invention was highly consumable; he just hadn’t realized its full potential yet. A short time later, though, he had a second flash of inspiration. “I was reading a report, and I had some questions about the data it contained, so I cut out a little sample of the bookmark material, stuck it in on the page where the data was, drew an arrow toward the data, and wrote my question,” he said. “Then I gave it to my supervisor.” Fry’s supervisor wrote his response on Fry’s note, applied it to another document, then sent it back to Fry. Later that day, the two men discussed the implications of their exchange. “We realized we’d hit upon a whole new way to communicate,” Fry said.

Ironically, Fry’s “bookmark” had morphed into something that was actually a cousin to the Post-it Bulletin Board. The difference between the two products was that Fry’s notes addressed the real shortcoming of bulletin boards: They weren’t limited because it was hard to stick things to them; they were limited because they were immobile. For information that could be transmitted via fixed locations, they worked fine. For information that needed to be transmitted in a more flexible, context-sensitive manner, they weren’t that useful. Fry’s notes, on the other hand, transformed practically any surface into an instant, compact bulletin board. “We got really excited because we knew we had a business,” Fry said. Sticky bulletin boards and sticky bookmarks were both niche products; sticky notes had the potential to be a blockbuster. Or to put it another way, they were a product that people would definitely use up.

While the phrase “viral marketing” would not come into vogue for another two decades, an epidemic hit the hallways and offices of 3M. “I’d give a person a pack of one hundred sheets, and that person would end up introducing the product to twenty other people,” said Fry. “It was a geometric expansion.” Almost overnight, the co-workers who hadn’t needed any more bookmarks a few weeks earlier were suddenly hitting up Fry for more samples. Sometimes, secretaries from other buildings on the 3M campus would trudge across five hundred yards of snow-covered lawn just to get another pad of notes. But even as Fry’s invention attracted a cult following at 3M, it remained a sideline project for him. His supervisor, a man named Bob Molenda, allowed him to charge his expenses to “miscellaneous accounts,” and whenever Fry was able to put aside his official assignments for a while, he continued to refine his notes. Eventually, a small team was assembled to explore the possibility of turning them into a commercial venture.

Unfortunately, they were up against certain strong institutional biases that permeated 3M. At 3M, superior bonding power was the measure of an adhesive’s value, not its lack of it. In addition, there weren’t any rolls involved in the product. “At 3M, you always had to put something on a roll,” said Pat Gaudio Edwards. “We were working in the Commercial Tape division, but Art’s notes didn’t look like tape.” Thanks to such factors, there was so little faith in the commercial prospects of Fry’s invention that Gaudio Edwards said she was tapped to be the Post-it line’s marketing coordinator because no one else wanted the assignment. “We’re giving the dog project to the girl,” her manager told her. “I hope you enjoy it.”

Preliminary evaluations from engineering and production divisions were similarly unenthusiastic. While Fry had perfected the process of making the notes on a small scale, mass production was a different matter. 3M had never had to stack tiny sheets of sticky paper into perfectly square pads. To do that, the company would have to invent a number of new machines. It would be costly, complicated, perhaps unfeasible. The bad news elated Fry. If the production process were easy to implement, he reasoned, the product would be too easy to copy. 3M’s capacity to conquer challenges that would overwhelm smaller operations gave it a clear strategic advantage.

Fry’s logic was unassailable, but 3M’s engineers failed to succumb to it. Fortunately, he had a wider range of closing techniques than the average luggage salesman. To prove that the necessary conversion machines wouldn’t be quite so hard to fabricate as the engineering department was imagining, Fry built a prototype machine himself, in his basement. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked well enough to show that it could be done. There was just one problem; by the time he was finished with it, it had grown bigger than he’d anticipated it would be. “To get it out of my basement, I had to take out the basement door, then the door frame, and part of a garden wall that was outside,” he said.

Fry loaded the machine into his pickup truck and drove it to 3M. And, really, what self-respecting engineering division of a huge multinational isn’t going to respond to a gambit like that? The necessary enhancements were made, the production process was perfected, and eventually, it was time to see what the public thought. In general, early focus group participants were enthusiastic, except when it came to the potential price. “They saw it was a clever little device,” said Steve Collins, who in the late 1970s was an account executive at Martin/Williams, the advertising agency that 3M had picked to handle the Post-it line of products. “Then you’d say it was ten times the cost of their scratch paper, and they’d go, ‘Oh, well, there’s no way we’re going to buy this stuff.’”

Still, in 1977, the company decided to test-market the product in four cities: Denver, Richmond, Tampa, and Tulsa. First, however, the product needed a name. One employee thought “Jot and Jerk” was the perfect appellation. Another suggested the name “Mount and Show.” “They were technical guys,” recalled Pat Gaudio Edwards. “They weren’t marketers.” In the end, the name “Press & Peel Pads” won out, and the product was released under the Scotch brand label. Unfortunately, it failed to ignite much interest. “Two of the test markets failed, flat out,” said Gaudio Edwards. “The other two were lukewarm. When we did the follow-up research, there just weren’t a lot of people saying this was a product they wanted.”

For many at 3M, it was cold, hard proof of what they’d suspected all along. People weren’t interested in glue that didn’t stick well. The Post-it Bulletin board had been a flop. The Press & Peel Pads were a flop. In the nine years since Spencer Silver had discovered his inherently tacky microspheres, a president had resigned, a war had ended, the PC revolution was under way, but Silver’s odd creation had failed to spawn a single successful product. Wasn’t it time, at last, to euthanize this underachieving adhesive?

Like every inventor at 3M, Fry had some experience with unhappy endings. Most of the projects he worked on, for one reason or another, never made it to market. But he also knew how much people liked his notes once they were taught how to use them. Even many of the naysayers were habitual users. Why, when it was so popular inside 3M, would it not be popular elsewhere? “We knew the test markets failed, but we just kept saying, ‘Maybe it was us. Maybe we did something wrong,’” said Gaudio Edwards. “Because it couldn’t be the product—the product was great.”

To see for themselves how people outside 3M responded to Post-it Notes, two 3M executives, Geoff Nicholson and Joe Ramey, decided to return to one of the test cities, Richmond, Virginia, to conduct their own one-day market research expedition.

Echoing Fry’s efforts at 3M, the duo cold-called offices throughout the city, giving away free samples and showing people how to use the product. The responses they got were substantially more enthusiastic this time. “Those things really were like cocaine,” said Steve Collins, who ended up working on the Post-it Notes account for more than a decade and is now the president of Martin/Williams. “You got them into somebody’s hands, and they couldn’t help but play around with them.”

Based on the success of the Richmond trip, Joe Ramey decided that at least one more large-scale test was in order. This time, however, they focused their efforts on a single city. “We went to Boise, Idaho, and loaded that town up,” said Gaudio Edwards. They got the local newspapers to run stories about the new product. They festooned stationery stores with banner displays and point-of-purchase materials. Thousands of sample notes were sent out to office managers, purchasing agents, lawyers, and hospital personnel. Most important, they put bodies on the ground, some of them 3M employees, some of them hired temps, to demonstrate the product to potential customers.

The campaign, code-named the Boise Blitz, was a huge success, and 3M finally decided to give the product a full commercial launch. Still, because of the product’s high price, distributors and retailers remained skeptical. People may like the product, their reasoning went, but only when it was free. No one was going to pay a penny a sheet for scratch paper. “In the beginning, stores would only take two sizes and one color, because they didn’t want to waste a lot of space on the product,” said Fry. 3M chose a shade it would eventually dub “canary yellow.” The debut sizes were three inches by five inches and one and a half inches by two inches. The larger ones went for ninety-eight cents per hundred-sheet pad.

The company also decided to change the product’s name. Fry said, “We had candidates like Sticky Notes and Papillon—the French word for butterfly. It sort of sounded like ‘paper,’ and yet it had the connotation of a butterfly landing, staying there for a moment, then flying away.” Higher-ups at 3M had a less poetic notion, however. They wanted to call the product Post-it Notes, to tie them in with the Post-it Bulletin Board. “We thought our names were a lot sexier, but management said, ‘No, we’re going to name it to match the bulletin board—the sales of one will help the sales of the other.’”

In fact, that was the case. Post-it Self-Stick Bulletin Boards, in faux-brown corkboard and a variety of other color options, are still available today, along with more than one thousand Post-it brand products that 3M has introduced in the wake of the Notes’ phenomenal success.

“We didn’t expect to make a profit for five years, but it only took one,” Fry told me. Once again, sampling played a key role in the product’s acceptance. “We probably distributed several million free notes that first year,” said Steve Collins. But when their free notes ran out, consumers bought more. 3M has rarely released sales statistics over the years, but in 1981, the company honored Post-it Notes with a Golden Step award, which it gave to any 3M product that recorded more than two million dollars in revenues, at a profit. In 1984, a People magazine article estimated the previous year’s sales at forty-five million dollars. In 1998, when Post-it Notes filed a lawsuit against a copycat competitor, a 3M company spokesperson said that worldwide sales of Post-it Notes and their spin-offs was around one billion dollars a year. A year earlier, that same spokesperson had described the Post-it brand as “one of the company’s two or three most valuable assets.”

Neither Art Fry nor Spencer Silver received any special financial compensation from 3M for their achievements, but both continued to work at the company and invent new products. In 1984, Fry was promoted to division scientist. In 1986, he was promoted to corporate scientist, the highest designation an employee can achieve on the technical side of the 3M corporate ladder. In 1985, Time magazine declared Post-it Notes one of the best products of the previous twenty-five years. Nearly two decades later, in 2004, the product was still earning raves. New York’s Museum of Modern Art featured it alongside the white T-shirt, the incandescent lightbulb, and 121 other icons of beautiful everyday design in its “Humble Masterpieces” exhibit.

But what would have happened if Post-it Notes had been introduced in, say, 1940, or even 1960? They probably would have still been a hit, but they wouldn’t have been so indispensable, so perfectly timed, so culturally apt. “The digital age generates so many documents, and they all look the same,” said Art Fry. “How do you organize all that material?”

Indeed, as workers tried to keep pace with all the new technologies invading offices in the early 1980s, the quickest to master them menaced their colleagues with a punishing blizzard of reports, memos, spreadsheets, newsletters, proposals, presentations, and white papers. Functionally, Post-it Notes were a useful tool to manage such information overload. Not only could you highlight the material that was most important, you could also document, via a quick little note to yourself, why you thought it was worth highlighting.

But the Post-it Note was more than just a practical tool—it was also a psychological one. Compared to the clunky machines of the 1980s that generated all those documents, it was a vision of high-tech minimalism. Its edges were sharp and square, with no ugly binding, no perforations, no metal rings. Its color, a subtle but attention-getting yellow, was somehow like the color of thought itself, a lightbulb going off in your head. Devoid of any other graphic elements, it had the effect of a clean, calming, blank screen. And, yet, for all its streamlined efficiency, it was playful and user-friendly, a simple embodiment of the same values that would inform the development of Apple’s Macintosh.

If MS-DOS made your brain ache, if you were all thumbs when it came to loading your sprocket-fed printer, Post-it Notes offered a fail-safe way to feel like you could stay ahead of the curve. And, as Martin/Williams would eventually discover through its market research, the product also functioned as a form of stress relief. “People would use the notes to write a to-do, or a next-step thing, they’d put that on a report or a memo or whatever, and they’d ship it off to someone else,” said Steve Collins. “It was a really easy way to say, ‘Okay, I’m getting out of here—it’s off my desk and on to someone else.’”

“Save time, save money,” declared one early Post-it Notes ad. Another called the product “a giant communications breakthrough.” But in the mid-1980s, when Post-it Notes were evolving from a successful product into an enduring brand, Martin/Williams shifted the message of the product’s advertising, focusing on a phenomenon it evocatively designated “stress dump.” “Take one of these to relieve congestion,” read an ad aimed at doctors. “One-minute managers need ten-second memos,” read another.

“Stress dump” is a concept that continues to resonate. Even at a penny a sheet—Post-it Note prices have remained pretty much the same over the years—they’re still substantially cheaper than, say, Valium. But what if you’re not the dumper, but rather, the dumpee? Consider the cult-classic movie comedy Office Space and its note-perfect portrait of life at a nineties-era software company. To illustrate its themes of workplace anomie in a single image, the movie’s producers created a promotional poster depicting a man covered head to foot in Post-its. Only his tie, his glasses, and his briefcase are visible –– all sense of his individuality, his humanity even, has been obliterated by Post-it Notes.

Who hasn’t been tyrannized, at one time or another, by some capricious boss armed with a dangerous stockpile of Post-it Notes? At the FBI, they’ve even coined a special acronym for the product. “They call them FLYNs,” said Fry, who learned this one day when an agent interviewed him for an FBI newsletter. “That stands for ‘funny little yellow notes.’ Except I’m cleaning it up when I say ‘funny.’” Fry clarified. “When field agents submit a report and it comes back with a lot of notes on it, that means it’s a lot more work for them. So they’ll say, ‘Man, I’ve really been flynned.’” But while Post-it Notes have bedeviled millions, they’re also universally beloved, a fact Fry attributed to their open-ended aspect. While Fry and his 3M colleagues initially had to show people how to use the product, they also left plenty of room for improvisation. “Everyone discovers their own creative applications, so they really feel a connection to them,” Fry said. By way of example, Fry told me about a secretary who used Post-it Notes to speed up her daily intra-office mail delivery routine. “The building she worked in was eleven stories high. Invariably, she’d get off the elevator, deliver the mail for that floor, and the elevator would have left without her.” In some buildings, perhaps, this might not have been such a big deal, but in this case, the building’s single elevator was extremely slow. To solve this problem, she began covering the elevator door’s electric eye with a Post-it Note, so it remains open until she returns. “It used to take her almost two hours to do the mail,” Fry said “Now she can do it in ten minutes.”

Most Post-it Notes are destined for mundane fates, of course, but even so, at least there’s always the possibility of innovation. Indeed, compare them to their closest ancestor, the pink “While You Were Out” form. On April 6, 1980, those forms played Frank Sinatra to the Post-it Notes’ Beatles. Suddenly, they seemed hopelessly dated—too conventional, too uptight, a relic from another era. They were still quite serviceable, but there was only one thing to use them for, and only one way to use them.

Post-it Notes, on the other hand, were dynamic, customizable, business casual. They inspired spontaneity, rapid ideation, free association. You could link one seemingly unrelated idea to another without worrying about any logical cohesion of ideas; that’s what the glue was for. After all, the digital drudgery of Office Space and “Dilbert” didn’t tell the full story of office life in the eighties and nineties. It was also the era of Wired and Fast Company, the rebel businessman, thinking outside the box. One day, you might get flynned. On another, you could map out a billion-dollar business plan on half a dozen tiny yellow squares.

Or maybe you would simply leave a note on the refrigerator in your apartment, telling your roommate to get more juice. From the start, Fry was thinking about the domestic possibilities. “When we were just about to launch the product, there was a lot of pressure to make the larger size four by six, because that’s how big the average desk dispenser for scratch paper was,” said Fry. He had other plans, however. “If they were three by five, you could fit them into your pocket and take them home with you.”

From a marketer’s perspective, Post-it Notes were pretty much the greatest invention since cigarettes. People used them at work, they used them at home, they used them everywhere—and they didn’t give you cancer. And because you could use them in so many different settings, for so many different kinds of communication, it was hard not to develop some emotional bond with them. The fact that they were also a discernible brand only magnified this dynamic. You would probably never say to yourself, “Ah, scratch paper! Thanks for the memories!” But with Post-it Notes, you just might. Because remember the time you used one to make up with your wife, or show off your genius to your boss, or play a practical joke on a friend?

In an increasingly automated, digitized world, Post-it Notes stood out as vivid emblems of authenticity: hand-written, informal, they literally required a “personal touch” to do their magic. This, of course, made it inevitable that advertisers would try to leverage their power. Today, preprinted Post-it Note ads appear in magazines, on newspaper front pages, and pretty much anywhere else you can stick a note. Such ads are straightforward and handy; you can tell they’re advertising, and if you’re interested in what they’re pitching, you can just peel off the note and file it for later reference.

But the most intriguing form of Post-it Note advertising is a product of rogue direct marketers, the legendary “Letter from J.” It’s hard to say when these missives first started appearing, but consumer complaints about them go back to the late 1980s. Typically, the “Letter from J.” consists of a simple white envelope, an “article” touting some noteworthy product or service, and a Post-it Note affixed to the article. The Post-it bears a message like, “Try this. It works! —J.” In truth, the article is just ad copy masquerading as a page torn out of Time or Forbes (with an authentically ragged edge), and J., whom the advertiser hopes you might mistake for your friend Joe, is in some instances, a low-paid human, or more commonly, a laser printer. Sometimes, the Letter from J. works your first name into the note for extra veracity. One especially chatty example, which in retrospect seems just a little too personalized to have been truly effective, was cited by consumer affairs columnist David Horowitz in 1989:

Dan, You’ve got to try this!
It really, really works!
And I love the cream. —J
P.S. Thinking of you,
and having a great time
in Disney World.

At least one marketer of weight-loss products continues to employ the technique. Over time, these devious ads have remained consistently effective. In 2004, a pair of university researchers conducted a series of “Letter from J.” mailings, then wrote about their experiment in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. Amongst their findings: “Attaching the Post-it Note resulted in 5.6 percent of the people asking for a free sample, whereas only three percent asked for a sample when they received the ad without the attached Post-it Note.”

Perhaps because these funny little yellow notes that didn’t stick so well have managed to stick around for a quarter of a century, many of the best-known Post-it Note anecdotes document their surprising bonding power. For example, there’s the one about the Post-it Note in Charleston, South Carolina, that survived Hurricane Hugo. While homeowner Bruce Brakefield lost eight oak trees in his front yard to the 140 mph winds, the note on his front door—it read “Baby Sleeping”—withstood the storm. Another Post-it Note endured a cross-country trip on the side of a moving van.

Ultimately, it’s not their bonding power that makes them so culturally resonant. Instead, it’s their flexibility, their impermanence, their ability to attach themselves to something, then detach themselves from it, then start the process all over again. Their creator, however, enjoyed a remarkably stable career. In 1992, after nearly forty years with 3M, Art Fry retired. Today, he still maintains close ties to the company. For many people, however, the last twenty-five years have been a time of great change in the workplace. People don’t stay with the same company from graduation to retirement anymore. To survive in an era of corporate downsizing, offshoring, and constant innovation, workers jumped from organization to organization to organization. They became consultants, independent contractors, free agents. Often, they switched careers entirely. They had to be flexible, resilient— not unlike the Post-it Note itself.